George Buck wanted to accomplish two things Monday: to officially launch his congressional campaign — and to honor his grandfather.
The Army veteran-turned academic hosted an informal meet and greet at Bascom's Chop House in Clearwater, rubbing elbows with a dozen or so friends and well-wishers. Thirty minutes into the event, the Republican gave a brief speech welcoming the modest crowd.
"I decided that I was going to make my official announcement today because of my grandfather's sacrifice," Buck said. In one corner of the room, he'd set up a mini shrine to his grandfather's World War I exploits, which began April 16, 1918 — 100 years ago to the day Monday.
Buck, himself an Army veteran of the first Gulf War, put veterans' issues at the front and center of his campaign launch. He said he wants to put a 13th Congressional District office on the campus at Bay Pines to make it more accessible to those who served. Buck added that he wants to help the Veterans Administration run more efficiently so former service men and women can have access to care.
Ray Raulerson, another former Army man who spent a career advocating for veterans, said Buck's service gives him the perspective necessary to be an effective elected official.
"He's not a man who says, 'I want to be somebody,'" Raulerson said at the event. "He's already been somebody."
Outside of veterans' issues, Buck's campaign launch was relatively light on policy specifics. In an interview, Buck mentioned that he wanted to emphasize "job sustainability" and to protect the environment. (The page of his campaign website dedicated to policy reads like that of many Republicans.)
When asked why he decided to run for Charlie Crist's congressional seat, Buck said that he had attended a workshop hosted by Crist and he was underwhelmed by the congressman's performance. But Buck largely avoided criticizing his Democratic opponent — the former Republican governor of Florida.
"I don't want to go negative today," Buck said.
Buck is surprisingly upbeat for a man who has spent his life dedicated to studying and preparing for the worst. He began his professional career as a firefighter before joining the U.S. Army. He then earned a Ph.D. and began teaching courses at Florida colleges about emergency management.
Most recently, he worked as a consultant in the niche field of catastrophe response. Buck has traveled to the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — among other disasters.
Politically, Buck is a mainstream Republican. He voted for Donald Trump in 2016. When asked to grade his presidency, Buck said he'd give Trump, "a B+ to an A."
"You can't agree with somebody one hundred percent, because then you're just a puppet," Buck said. "And I'm not going to be like that."
Other attendees said they came to support Buck, but many acknowledged unseating the well funded and universally recognized Crist would be no small task.
"He's going to be hard to beat," Frank Courtney of Clearwater said. (Buck has yet to hire a campaign manager, and he has yet to file a campaign finance report with the FEC.)
But the mood at Buck's gathering was upbeat. And the largest cheer of the night came at the end of Buck's brief speech, when he said the words everyone seemed to be waiting to hear.
"Let's go beat Charlie!"